According to DownBeat, “Little Walter almost single-handedly fashioned the stylistic approach for harmonica which has since become standard for the genre and has been emulated by virtually every blues harmonica player.” Indeed, it’s been said that Little Walter was to harmonica blues what Charlie Parker was to jazz saxophone and Jimi Hendrix was to rock guitar and it’s impossible to argue. Yet, outside those of us who love the blues, he is not nearly as well known as he should be.
Born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1, 1930, in rural Louisiana, he moved to Chicago at the age of 16 and began playing the clubs with Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy.
Walter recorded first in 1947; the following year he toured and recorded with Muddy Waters band as well as playing on the records of other Chicago musicians. The power of his harmonica added great intensity to many a blues record and soon he was offered the chance to record under his own name. In 1952 he cut “Juke,” as Little Walter & his Night Cats for the Checker label and it made No.1 on the R&B charts in September of the same year; in so doing it became the first of 15 of his records to chart.
In 1955 “My Babe” also topped the R&B charts with “Sad Hours,” “Blues With A Feeling,” and “You’re So Fine” all reaching No.2. These records along with “Key To The Highway” represent the cream of Little Walter’s output that has influenced blues musicians for the last half-century.
Little Walter continued to record with Muddy Waters – the two men dominated the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s. Walter toured Europe in 1962, appearing on the American Folk Blues Festival, but after returning to the USA his career hit the buffers; although he did tour Europe again in 1967. He was a heavy drinker and liked to fight and, after a vicious brawl on February 15, 1968, he died of coronary thrombosis. Little Walter was 37 years old.
What remains, however, is some indelible music. Music that still resonates. As John Lee Hooker said, “He’s got a lot a soul!”
Follow the Chess Records Essential playlist to hear Little Walter and other blues icons.